Travels With Gloria

Finding beauty mile by mile.

Month: April, 2012

How to learn another alphabet

Communist graffiti in Kolkata, India. Photo by Sara Clarke.

People say I’m good with languages. On a family trip to Italy when I was in college, I somehow became the de facto group translator even though I do not speak Italian. I was vice-president of the Spanish club in high school despite a total lack of passion for the language of burritos. I have this uncanny ability to say two or three words just well enough to be mistaken for fluent in any language. Me and talking just click, I guess.

I'm so gifted with languages that I managed to decipher this sign after spending all night on an Indian train. Photo by Sara Clarke.

Similarly, I’ve always been big into the written word. I taught myself to read by the time I was four. I have amazing handwriting. The books in my apartment multiply like roaches. I spend an inordinate amount of time working on this here blog.

And yet.

I have never been able to learn to read any alphabet other than the Latin one. I sort get how Greek is supposed to work, and I can grok Cyrillic if it’s a word I already know, like Starbucks or Moscow. That’s the limit of my ability to comprehend other writing systems. This is really embarrassing. In fact, I consider it one of my great failings as a human being. There are people in India who use 4 or 5 different writing systems on a daily basis, and yet here I am with my puny repertoire of one.

The work of a genius, I tell you. Photo/illustration by Ryan Estrada.

Because of this, I’m wildly impressed with the work of illustrator Ryan Estrada. Estrada managed to explain the Korean alphabet in the form of a web comic. An entire writing system in eight panels. And one of those panels is just a big header that says LEARN TO READ KOREAN IN FIFTEEN MINUTES. This guy. I just don’t even. I think I want to marry this dude.

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Art and Place

Vintage Pan Am destination guide covers designed by George Tscherny. Via Container List.

It’s a little bit difficult to explain to people what my blog is about. Travels With Gloria germinated as a travel blog about art. I’d write about where to find the best Caravaggio paintings in Rome, how to score Coachella tickets, the ethics of travel photography, and whether maha-tourism sites like Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal are worth visiting. In January I took a month off from other kinds of writing, meditated on the fetus of TWG, and somehow she took a left turn and became the blog you see before you. I like where she’s going, but what the hell is this about, anyway?

Baggage, by Chris Stott. This is a fricken PAINTING, y'all. Via Chris Stott, via Jen Bekman's tumblr.

I tend to tell people that I write a blog about Art and Place. This sounds pretentious, and I’m pretty sure it boils down to writing a blog that isn’t about much of anything. I especially started to feel this way when I was trying to brainstorm posts to write about my trip to Istanbul in February. I spent a lot of that trip exploring Istanbul’s contemporary art scene, which according to the New York Times is Kind Of A Big Deal these days. I saw lots of interesting work, and even more interesting curatorial approaches. And yet a lot of what I saw was not really all that Turkish.

Of course, I saw piles of work by Turkish artists. But what does it mean for art to be Turkish? A lot of the art I saw that was made by Turkish people looked pretty much just like the art that is being made by Americans, or Germans, or Israelis. Just, you know, art. The sort of art that fills galleries all over the world and doesn’t inspire anyone to say, “Wow, look how American/ German/Israeli this art is!” Very little of it — in fact, pretty much NONE of the contemporary works by young Turkish artists that I saw — seemed to be about being Turkish, or what Turkey is today, or to offer a perspective on Turkish history or culture. Which is fine, obviously.

Is this worthy of posting on my blog only if the artist is Malaysian or something? Marion Jdanoff, silkscreen. Via BOOOOOOOM.

But it made me wonder. Why do I feel compelled to write these posts about people like Keith Haring and Patti Smith in New York, or Nuria Mora in Madrid, or Carrie Brownstein in Portland? What causes those artists to be associated with certain places while there are millions of painters and musicians all over the world who aren’t associated with any particular place at all? Damian Hirst could be from Nebraska or Capetown as easily as he could be from London. Frankly, I’m not even sure he’s from London. Maybe he’s from Glasgow or Manchester. Does it matter?

Maybe the answer is in something the Somalian rapper K’Naan said about Fela Kuti:

Fela was, himself, an African. He was an African in front of Africans, he was an African in front of Europeans, and Americans, and anywhere in the world. He brought himself as a fully African human being who had something to contribute to sound and your mentality of things — without any concealing of any part of his heritage — exposing an entire sound to the world.

Maybe what these artists share is that particular interest in expressing place and their culture to the rest of the world.

Or maybe there’s no answer at all. Maybe it’s all racist bullshit. Maybe this piece is “about” Mexico because it’s about an aspect of Mexican culture that I, a white person and an outsider, recognize:

Gabriel Dawe, From the Plexus series. Site specific installation in thread and wood. Via Coolhunting.

Maybe I wouldn’t recognize that some other artist is even Mexican at all. Maybe none of the Turkish contemporary art was Turkish enough for me because I don’t know fuck all about what it means to be Turkish. Maybe I’m looking for carpets and Odalisques and Osman Hamdi Bey. Perhaps this blog will find a way to get people thinking about some of these questions, even if I can’t possibly answer them. In the meantime, I plan to continue posting dorky rants about Korean soap operas and how much I want to go to Uzbekistan. So I hope you like that sort of thing.

P.S. Do you guys want to know about Caravaggio paintings and music festivals and whether the Taj Mahal is worth it or what? Because I can do that, too. I think this is a little more interesting, but maybe that would bring in some more traffic. What do you guys think?

Planned to take advantage of a long haul flight

How could I not post this?

Nina Katchadourian, Lavatory Self-Portraits in Fifteenth Century Flemish Style.

“While in the lavatory on a domestic flight in March 2010, I spontaneously put a tissue paper toilet cover seat cover over my head and took a picture in the mirror.”

The rest is (art) history.

On view at San Francisco’s Catharine Clark Gallery from April 14 through May 26.

But wait. There’s more!

Hurry, boy, it’s waiting there for you

In the audience at the Festival Au Desert in northern Mali. Photo by Alfred Weidinger, via Flickr.

Rock stars of the eighties cared a lot about Africa. There was “Heal The World”, “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, and “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City”.  There were also more aesthetic influences, for example Paul Simon’s album Graceland.

And then there was Toto. Created neither to raise awareness for the plight of the oppressed nor to celebrate a rich cultural heritage, Toto’s song Africa managed to jump on the eighties sub-Saharan bandwagon with a vague global outlook and paternalistically nonsensical lyrics. I could break out all the reasons this song is abhorrent, but I’ll let Steve Almond do it instead, in this hilarious reading from Tin House Magazine‘s tenth anniversary celebration a few years ago:

 

Even if your pop music tribute to Africa was a little more well-meaning — or at least well-crafted — than Toto’s ode to Mount Kilimanjaro rising over the Serengeti (by the way, it doesn’t), there was a strong chance that it was performed by white people, or at the very least by people who had never actually been to or lived in Africa.

It’s perverse that for Americans to get behind African social causes and artistic contributions, it had to be done under the guise of whitebread normalcy. As opposed to, I don’t know, making Fela Kuti the international megastar he deserved to be.

 

It’s good that Paul Simon shared some of the credit with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and I think this weird intermediate period in American and British pop ultimately led to the more diverse musical landscape of today. But how many singles did “Do They Know It’s Christmas” sell compared to anything ever released by Miriam Makeba or Ali Farka Toure?

Sidenote: before I die, I’m going to the Festival Au Desert in Essakane, Mali. It’s a three-day music festival celebrating peace through music. Bono made a surprise visit this year, which I suppose means it’s officially jumped the shark. But I don’t care, I still want to go. Maybe 2013 is my year…

Fridays On Etsy

I sort of hate Etsy. Ninety percent of it is garbage, and the other ten percent is usually riddled with typos, poorly photographed, or over-optimistically described (“Upcycled?” Seriously?). And so I’ve decided to dedicate my Fridays to highlighting the few diamonds in the rough I manage to find. Everything is related to travel, place, and the arts, of course.

Vintage photo album, via Etsy seller ScottishArt.

I love this little photo album, and $19 is probably what you’d spend on a brand new equivalent. You could use it to showcase your Instagram and Hipstamatic photos in vintage style. It’s also the perfect size for the “Polaroids” made by those new Instax cameras that have started popping up here and there.  For what it’s worth, I don’t think this is really from the 50’s, unless the seller retrofitted it with those plastic photo sleeves.

Travel Backgammon set, via Etsy seller MidMod.

Backgammon has always seemed so cool, probably because it’s wicked confusing. This little travel set is adorable, perfect for getting your game up to snuff on the plane before you challenge the locals in a country where Backgammon is crazy popular, such as Turkey or Greece. A great inspiration to learn Backgammon? This little minx only costs $12.

Bulova travel alarm clock, via Etsy seller Pascalene.

There are lots of travel alarm clocks on Etsy, but I picked this one because it’s gorgeous, it apparently works (which I believe because it comes in its original box), and it has a calendar feature. Frankly, I’m a sucker for the slim black line detail that bisects the clock face and traces the date of the calendar. Also, I just noticed that the hours are marked by the palest seafoam green dots. The red/gold/black/seafoam color combo makes this worth every penny of that $38 price tag. It’s the little things, I guess.

The past is a Yakov Smirnov joke.

1961 USSR postage stamp celebrating Yuri Gagarin's space flight. via Flickr.

I have a fascination with Soviet Russia, especially the aesthetics of the USSR from the 60’s through the fall of the Iron Curtain. Call it ostalgia if you want. I’ve always wanted to visit Russia, even nowadays when obviously most reminders of the Soviet days are long gone.

I think it comes from the mystique of the Soviet Union as “other” when I was little. I remember taking a theater workshop when I was like seven years old (yes I was always a dork) where we were given the improv prompt “what if a Russian kid moved to your town?”

The teacher was really mad when I said I would ask him what it was like in Russia and try to become his friend.

Via Coolhunting.

Of course, now ostalgia is trendy. A museum of Soviet arcade games recently opened in Moscow.

There are also two recent books on design behind the Iron Curtain. Iron Curtain Graphics is a book of Romanian communist poster and propaganda design, while Made In Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design is an exploration Russian product design.

A Krugozor cover from 1964. Via krugozor-kolobok.ru

My favorite Soviet product, though is Krugozor, a music magazine published from 1964 through 1991. It came with a flexible record, though I’m having trouble finding out exactly what was on the records. A 99% Invisible podcast episode dedicated to Krugozor claims that the records included sound effects and music, and that somehow the editors were allowed to include rock music. Which sounds weird to me because rock was apparently censored or at least stifled in the Soviet Union at the time. Then again, I’m not up on my Soviet policies on Rock n Roll through the ages — maybe it was only later issues of Krugozor that included that sort of thing, during Perestroika.

It’s really difficult to find out exactly what Krugozor was or what it included, because virtually everything I can find written about it is in Russian. This definitely adds to my fascination with it. If I could read Russian, I would probably discover that Krugozor was the Soviet equivalent of Readers’ Digest, and it would cease to be interesting.

Another Krugozor cover, this time from 1971. Same source.

Sidenote/pointless quasi-proustian reminiscence: For years, there was a Taaka Vodka billboard featuring Yakov Smirnov on Veterans’ Memorial Boulevard (AKA “Vets”, to the extent that I just had to look up the actual name of the street) in New Orleans on the way to the airport. My mother’s parents spent most of the 80’s living in Cameroon, so Driving To The Airport was always a momentous occasion. I will always ever so vaguely associate world travel, the Cold War, AIDS, terrorism, apartheid, Ronald Reagan, and Duty Free, with Taaka Vodka. For no reason other than that this billboard happened to exist and perfectly symbolize everything my five year old brain didn’t understand about the world. (I still totally don’t understand Duty Free.)

Wednesday Round Up.

Screenshot diptych from Pollock. Via Design*Sponge.

Design*Sponge did a Living In post on Pollock. I remember disliking this movie when I first saw it, but damn, it really gets the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic right. I think the main reason I wish I were an artist is the idea of having a ramshackle old studio-slash-house out somewhere nobody else wants to live. In the 50’s that was eastern Long Island. Which is funny because now the Hamptons is the land of spray-tan and appletinis, a place the least imaginative people in the world want to be. I think now you’d have to be in Detroit or a ghost town in the rust belt. Will those places be the hot vacation spots of 2062?

Image courtesy Huffington Post.

The Film On The Rocks Yao Noi Festival — curated by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tilda Swinton —  created a floating island cinema for screenings.

La Guardia Airport, 1961. Via Retronaut.

Just in time for the new season of Mad Men, Retronaut has a photo series on flying into La Guardia airport in 1961.

This picture of Clarissa Darling wearing a Keith Haring t-shirt brought to you by the fact that I can't get any good MTV Art Break video clips to embed properly. Image blatantly stolen from Flavorwire.

Remember how yesterday I mentioned that Keith Haring did stuff for MTV in the 80’s? Well it turns out MTV is bringing back the Art Break. Too bad nobody cool watches MTV anymore. Also, too bad I suck at embedding video. Click the link, I guess.

Painting Myself Into A Corner

Untitled, 1982. Sumi ink on paper. Image courtesy Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Keith Haring was an oddly ubiquitous part of my childhood. Oddly because, well, I grew up in a socially and culturally conservative small town where there is little appreciation for art of any kind, let alone the dingy grafitti-inspired oeuvre of a gay painter from the New York underground club scene.

And yet his work was everywhere in my childhood. Maybe it was his later status at the epicenter of the AIDS crisis, a supposedly gentler alternative to controversial artists like David Wojnarovicz and Robert Mapplethorpe. Or it could have had something to do with MTV’s commissions of their trademark astronaut as a Haring cartoon stick figure.

My memory of his work is so cuddly and bland that at first I wasn’t that interested in seeing the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition Keith Haring: 1878-1982. But I was surprised by the work. It’s more raw than the dogs and babies that made Haring famous, oddly violent and often centered on images of penises and men fucking. This is not the ubiquitous Keith Haring of my childhood.

There are two pieces in the show that not only changed my understanding of Haring’s work but, frankly, blew my mind.

Untitled, 1979. Acrylic and ink on paper. Image courtesy haring.com.

The first is a study in abstraction done in 1979 when Haring was at SVA. The swirling figures interlock like puzzle pieces, suggesting a pile of humanity. It’s a bridge between Bruegel and Pollock, a mass of dynamic energy that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30). 1950. Enamel on canvas. Image via metmuseum.org.

Pieter Bruegel The Elder, The Wedding Dance. Oil on panel. Image via Wikipedia.

The other piece stood out to me in a much less didactic way. It’s just… perfect. It’s the kind of painting you can’t describe in words. This is a masterpiece in a completely sincere way. It scratches the part of your brain that can find euphoria in a line or a shape. Unfortunately, I can’t find an image of it online. However, I did find a still of a video piece Haring made around the same time that features himself creating a painting that looks very much like the one I’m thinking of. So I’ll give you that, and then you have to go to the Brooklyn Museum to see the piece I’m talking about. Trust me, you’ll recognize it.

Still from Painting Myself Into A Corner video, 1979. Image courtesy Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Also brilliant, and a reason to check out the Haring show at the Brooklyn Museum even if you’re not a huge fan of his work: it’s one of the best curated shows I’ve ever seen. I especially love the choice to feature the music of 70’s and 80’s New York in some of the rooms. It’s rare that museums connect fine art with other artistic forms from the same period, and for Keith Haring, who exhibited work in nightclubs and made drawings on the subway, I thought it was a perfect choice.

UPDATE: Check out this tumblr with scans of Keith Haring’s journals. They start when he was thirteen years old!

The Man Who Saves The World

Dünyayi Kurtaran Adam: the limit of my knowledge of Turkish culture before visiting Istanbul. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

I have a confession to make.

A few months ago, when I bought a ticket to Istanbul pretty much on a whim, I knew only one thing for sure about Turkey. Was it the fact that the Ottoman Empire brought Islamic culture almost to the gates of Vienna in the sixteenth century? Was it the sacking of still-Byzantine Constantinople by their fellow Christians during the fourth Crusade? Was it the beauty of Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace?

It was none of those things.

I knew that, in the 1980’s, Turkey made its own version of Star Wars. The special effects and John Williams’ score were ripped directly from the genuine article, because (this part of my research is a little shaky) apparently Turkey hadn’t signed some international copyright treaty that would explicitly ban such behavior. Or maybe that isn’t true, maybe the Turkish film industry just thought, hey, you know, we’re Turkey. Hollywood has no idea we even make movies. Our language has lots of umlauts in it. We can do whatever we want.

Turkish Star Wars action figure. Image via the Starswar Collector Archive.

For a long time, Turkish Star Wars existed for me in a web of rumor. It was discussed in hushed tones over bong rips and rounds of Goldeneye on Nintendo 64 in the dorms my freshman year at Emerson. A few people boasted of having seen it, and yet nobody could produce a copy. We had no way of verifying any of it in this barely-internetted era, so the stories got more and more ridiculous. Some insisted that there was a whole movement of Turkish copycat films: Turkish Jaws, Turkish Superman, Turkish Wizard Of Oz.

 

And then one day, after I left Emerson for New York, I was digging through old VHS tapes at Kim’s Video in the East Village. It was there: a Radio Shack brand blank tape with a moldering label scrawled with the words TURKISH STAR WARS, a bootleg of a bootleg of a bootleg. I took it home. I’m not sure if it was the cheap production values, the seizure-inducing jump cuts, or the fact that it of course had no English, but it was completely inscrutable. I watched twenty minutes or so, grew bored, and switched it out for The Happiness of the Katakuris, which I’d also picked up that day.

By the time I bought that ticket to Istanbul a decade or so later, the internet had changed everything. Nothing will ever be shrouded in as much mystery as Turkish Star Wars — which Wikipedia now reveals is actually titled Dünyayi Kurtaran Adam — used to be. The world is now laid out in explicit facts and fictions. This film was made; here’s its IMDB page and a clip from YouTube. The kid from the Life Cereal Box did not die after mixing pop rocks and coke; that’s an urban legend. There are obvious benefits to the new way of seeing the world through a constant stream of information. I don’t think Barack Obama would be president if it weren’t for the good people at Snopes. And, hell, I wouldn’t have bought a ticket to Istanbul on a whim if the internet hadn’t laid bare the details of Delta’s winter fare sale.

But a part of me is nostalgic for a time when you could believe that Turkish filmmakers had created a shot for shot reproduction of Star Wars down to the pastries in Princess Leia’s hairdo, and that they might have even done the same for E.T., The Excorcist, and Gone With The Wind.

Side note: I would really love it if someone could explain the existence of these ripped off Star Wars action figures from Turkey. Clearly they are not relevant to Dünyayi Kurtaran Adam, which doesn’t much resemble Star Wars at all and wasn’t branded as Star Wars in Turkey. And yet they share the same bootleggy mistranslated weirdness with the phenomenon of Turkish Hollywood ripoffs. I think this is just a coincidence allowed for by the time before the internet allowed everyone to share the same mass culture and also allowed huge megacorporations to make serious bank by enforcing mass culture uniformity. But who knows?

Disclaimer: Turkish Gone With The Wind does not exist. As far as I know…

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